Many of them were only made for a fistful of dollars. But Leone loved the Western.
As we were talking recently about the Western career of Clint Eastwood (click the link for that), I thought we might take the trail of the so-called spaghetti western for a while, and have a look at the ‘dollars trilogy’.
I should probably preface these notes by saying that I personally am not a fan of the genre. Much as I love Westerns (proper Westerns, I mean) I do not care for the 1960s/70s Italian variety. I know these pictures have their fans, and they did have certain plus points. For one thing, they contributed to a revival of the form, and movie theaters filled up once again with people paying to watch Westerns (or westerns anyway), which was certainly no bad thing. And they also injected new blood (quite a lot of it, in fact) into the genre which had perhaps become somewhat tired and formulaic. It is said that spaghetti westerns brought new audiences to the six-gun movie – younger people, and older ones who had grown tired of the 1950s black & white B-Westerns they remembered, and wanted to move on in the 1960s. These films were at least new, brash, noisy and in color. In any case, at the very least we had movie theaters full of audiences watching Westerns again, no mean feat.
Prime movers of these movies, such as Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, were great admirers of American Westerns of the 1940s and 50s, and quoted them in some way in their own pictures. Actually, Leone’s father had directed and his mother starred in what is often regarded as the first ever silent Italian western, La Vampira Indiana, in 1913.
But for me their low production values, often shockingly bad dubbing, awful music and trashy cartoon style put me off. Still, each to his (or as they would say these days their) own.
Real fans of spaghetti westerns, though, will probably want to stop reading here. I wouldn’t want to cause any attacks of apoplexy.
Probably the most famous spaghetti westerns of all are the three pictures Leone made with Clint Eastwood, of which Per un pugno di dollari is the first. On the screen, the English title says Fistful of Dollars but it has usually been referred to as A Fistful of Dollars or For a Fistful of Dollars. Whichever.
There is a huge amount to say about the genre and no space to do it here (and, I fear, not much will) but the most famous book on the subject is the dense film-crit tome Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling. It’s long and earnest, and you’d have to be obsessively interested to get through it all. The title of the weighty volume would seem to suggest that the term spaghetti western is not pejorative. An early Japanese critic called these pictures macaroni westerns but the spag label is the one that stuck. They were Italian in the sense that often the director and much of the cast were Italians, and a lot of the production happened at Cinecittà in Rome, but they were often filmed in Spain, as was Fistful, and there were frequently companies from other countries (Germany, for example) investing in them.
As Frayling himself says, in some ways spaghetti westerns are not Westerns at all, they are about Westerns. Another way of looking at it is Alberto Moravia’s view that while Hollywood Westerns are based on myth, spaghetti westerns are a myth of the myth.
Anyway, A Fistful of Dollars (that’s what I’m calling it, or Fistful for short) is a typical example, in fact an archetype. The story was a very well-worked one, about the fellow who plays two rival gangs off, one against the other. Dashiell Hammett had done it in Red Harvest (1929), Kurosawa did it in Yojimbo (1961) and it was later to come full circle and be reworked as a gangster movie (but a Western really) by Walter Hill in Last Man Standing (1996) – a movie I really like, and infinitely superior to Fistful. Leone even argued that it was based on Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, but there may have been an element of chauvinismo there, and/or a desire to skate round slight, ahem, legal issues. No fewer than seven people, including Leone, worked on the writing – nine if you count the two Japanese credited with the Yojimbo screenplay – for Leone did at least at last, if reluctantly, accord credit.
In most countries it was rated as suitable only for adults when it came out because of the brutality, and the beatings and murders are still quite shocking today. But the violence is stylized and in the showdowns the celebrants perform a ritual.
The credit titles at the start are James Bondish (Bond films and their Italian rip-off copies were hugely popular in Italy) and the idea was to produce Westerns, then in decline, which would appeal to 007 (or Italian 006) audiences.
Many of the actors had American names, perhaps because they thought it was cool, perhaps because they thought it would be more commercially successful. For example, the main bad guy is billed as John Wells, but is better known to us as Gian-Maria Volontè.
Like all spaghetti westerns, this one has the dialogue and sound dubbed-in afterwards. I have always disliked dubbed films, far preferring subtitles, and in these ones everything is dubbed. Leone especially liked this. It is said that this came from the fact that Cinecittà movie studios were directly under the flight-path to Fiumicino airport, rendering direct recording impossible. At any rate, movie-makers got used to filming first and adding the sound afterwards. This had two big advantages: one, it freed actors up from encumbrances such as boom mikes (directors could also shout instructions from behind the camera; these pictures resembled silent movies in that respect), and two, international actors could talk their own language and be post-dubbed into whatever lingo the market required. The drawback was that it always looked and sounded false, no matter how technically proficient dubbing was. And often on these ultra-low-budget pictures, there was little money to spare for high-quality dubbing. In some of these westerns you get men falling over before the gunshot, that kind of thing, and the lips clearly do not synch with the words spoken. Even if you watch a really classy Italian film, such as, say, Visconti’s The Leopard, Burt Lancaster’s part just doesn’t work. In cheap rip-off films of the spaghetti western kind, it’s even more painful.
Another problem with the sound is that it is vastly overdone. Spaghettis delighted in overloud gunshots and overdubbed clip-clopping hooves. Leone especially was a big fan of this so-called “sound design”. This has had, in my view, a deleterious effect on modern movies. Sound technicians have now become “foley artists” and characters can’t put a glass down without a mega-decibel thudding through movie theaters’ equally mega stereo sound systems, or pull a gun or twirl a knife without those stupid phew-phew noises. And why do all shots in spaghetti westerns have a ricochet whine, even if they don’t hit anything?
But that’s enough ranting.
I’ve said low-budget: Fistful was made for about US$200,000. Clint was only in it because he was the cheapest Yankee star available, at $15,000 all in. Leone wanted Fonda, who was too expensive; then it was offered to James Coburn, ditto. They even asked Charles Bronson, who turned it down because it was the worst script he had ever read, he said. Clint was something of a later choice. He was still doing Rawhide at the time, but wanted to escape (he called it Rawmeat and wanted back onto the big screen). Rawhide brought his name to fame, in some way, so to Leone he qualified as an American Western actor. Clint later recounted, “The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a Western in Italy and Spain. I said, ‘Not particularly’. They said, ‘Why don’t you give the script a quick look?’ Well, I was kind of curious, so I read it, and I recognized it right away as Yojimbo, a Kurosawa film I had liked a lot. Over I went, taking the poncho with me – yeah the cape was my idea.” Maybe Clint had in the back of his mind another Western made from a Kurosawa picture, The Magnificent Seven (1960), which despite a slow start in the US was becoming a big success.
However, Leone was not Sturges.
The original script had yards and yards of dialogue which Clint simply cut. He wanted to be the mystery man who kept people guessing. “I felt the less he said, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.” Clint also said “I guess I finally got to a point where I had enough nerve to do nothing.” It worked. Viewers hung on his every grunt. Richard Burton, co-star on Where Eagles Dare (1968) said Eastwood had “dynamic lethargy”, which put it rather well.
Clint said, “I spun off Sergio and he spun off me. I think we worked well together. I like his compositions. He has a very good eye. I liked him, I liked his sense of humor, but I feel it was mutual. He liked dealing with the kind of character I was putting together.” It can’t have been easy: Eastwood spoke no Italian and Leone no English. Clint said they spoke a bit in Spanish “but Sergio didn’t know much Spanish either”.
Fistful has the European gray/olive color of its Spanish settings rather than the yellow/pink New Mexico deserts or rich Arizona reds or high Colorado greens we had come to expect. So these pictures look different, as well as sounding different. But they certainly had a visual style of their own.
Characters and sets are scruffy, dirty and beat-up, which is quite good. There are the famous very close close-ups of faces and, for some odd reason, men’s boots and horses’ hooves. All spaghetti westerns seemed to have this obsession, I don’t quite know why.
Though some people like it, Ennio Morricone’s music is unpleasantly jangly. Leone wanted a Rio Bravo-type deguello on the trumpet and Morricone came up with some trumpet stuff. There’s a definite nod to Ghost Riders in the Sky. The soundtracks of these films were also cheaply done and tended to avoid orchestral arrangements of original scores because of the cost. Many people think that Morricone was a genius. They are, however, wrong.
The ‘hero’ is morally neutral, just an impartial observer, in it for what he could get – i.e. dollars. He even watches a child being mistreated without intervening in the first reel, unthinkable in an American Western. Perhaps this was a deliberate reversal. At one point, a character says, when looking down on a scene just before a massacre, “It’s just like playing cowboys and Indians.” Yup.
It’s alright if you like comics but it is actually quite curious how these movies became all the rage, especially in Italy but then all over the world, even in America. Audiences seemed to revel in their very trashiness. Perhaps they smiled with knowing, ironic amusement at the evident cheap rip-off nature of these commercially churned out pictures. Or perhaps they really thought Fistful was good. Or art. I call it art drecko.
The only really good bit is when Joe (he does actually have a name) invites the bad guys – or should I say even worse guys – to apologize to his mule.
And in a process of reverse-engineering, some aspects of the spaghetti fed back into mainstream American Westerns in an interesting way. Take a Western like Barquero, say, with Lee Van Cleef (who assumed the mantle in Spain after Clint had had enough). It’s really American spaghetti. When Eastwood started making his own big-screen Western features back in the US, they were highly spag-influenced. For example, in High Plains Drifter, his first Western as director, Clint is once more a nameless superhero, ‘The Stranger’, riding into the town of Lago to the sound of exaggerated over-dubbed clip-clopping, seeing a coffin-maker at work and then shooting three importunate thugs. Lago might just as well have been San Miguel in Fistful. Doubtless it was a knowing allusion though it just comes across as spaghetti alla americana.
The movie was a slow burner. Though popular in Italy, where it was released in the fall of 1964, it didn’t come out in France until March 1966 and wasn’t released in the US until January 1967. Universal bought it. But it really took off then, rather to Eastwood’s surprise, and the sequel too, For a Few Dollars More, our next review, which had been shot in April/May 1965 and was released in Italy in December that year but in the States in May ’67, and was often shown together with Fistful.
At the time, reception of Fistful was mixed. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times on the movie’s US release in 1967 said, “Just about every Western cliché that went with the old formula of the cool and mysterious gunslinger who blows into an evil frontier town and takes on the wicked, greedy varmints, knocking them off one by one, is in this egregiously synthetic but engrossingly morbid, violent film.” At least he thought it was engrossing. Crowther added, “A Fistful of Dollars is a Western that its sanguine distributors suggest may be loosing a new non-hero on us—a new James Bond. God forbid!” Well, the deity did not forbid, sadly.
But some critics thought it was great. Variety called it “A cracker-jack western” and said it was “a hard-hitting item, ably directed, splendidly lensed, neatly acted, which has all the ingredients wanted by action fans and then some.”
Later views are equally divided. Brian Garfield, in his splendid 1980s guide Western Films, said the movie had “a to-hell-with-it comic-book mindlessness of flippant offhand violence” and “one’s reaction may be revulsion or simply boredom”. He added that “there is no dramatic conflict because there are no characters”. I think, though, Brian, that that was the point.
In The Rough Guide to Westerns, Paul Simpson talks of Leone’s “shameless bravura”. Dennis Schwarz on his website wrote, “In this Western parody, there’s some humor behind all the choreographed violence,” and you may agree with that. The BFI Companion to the Western rather sniffily doesn’t review it at all.
Of course Frayling discusses it at some considerable length, but in that dense ‘film studies language’ that I find indigestible, and he is definitely guilty of over-intellectualizing what after all is only a cowboy movie, and a pretty trashy one at that – even if deliberately so. Still, if you want to go deeper, you could start there.
Well, sorry if you are a fan and I have offended you. Although I don’t like this movie, or think it is good, I will say that it marked a turning point and has been hugely influential.